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Some of the 2,000 items stolen from the British Museum have been recovered, officials say

The head of the British Museum’s board of trustees said on Saturday that the museum had found some of the 2,000 items believed to have been stolen by an insider, but acknowledged the 264-year-old institution does not have records of all of its extensive items collection features.

The chairman of the board of trustees, George Osborne, acknowledged that the museum’s reputation has been damaged by the mishandling of the thefts, which has led to the resignation of its director and raised questions about security and governance.

Osborne told the BBC on Saturday that the figure of 2,000 items stolen was a “very preliminary figure” and staff were working to identify anything missing. Items include gold jewelry, precious stones, and antiques dating back up to 3,500 years. None of these had been on public display recently.

He said the museum is working with the antiquarian community and art rescue experts to get the items back.

“We believe we have been victims of theft over a long period of time and frankly more could have been done to prevent it,” he said. “But I promise you, it’s a mess we’re going to clean up.”

Museum director Hartwig Fischer announced his resignation on Friday, apologizing for not taking seriously enough an art historian’s warning that artifacts from his collection were being sold on eBay. Deputy director Jonathan Williams also said he would resign while an investigation into the incident was conducted.

In early 2021, British-Danish art historian and dealer Ittai Gradel approached museum bosses with his suspicions, but they reassured him that everything was fine. But earlier this year, the museum called London’s Metropolitan Police.

The museum has fire an employee and legal action was taken against them, but no arrests were made.

Gradel told the Associated Press on Friday he became suspicious after buying one of three items a seller had listed on eBay. Gradel traced the two items he didn’t buy back to the museum. The object he bought was not listed in the museum’s catalogue, but he discovered that it had belonged to a man who donated his entire collection to the museum in 1814.

The historian said he found out the seller’s identity through PayPal. He turned out to be the museum employee, who has since been fired.

Gradel said Williams assured him a thorough investigation had revealed no irregularities. “Basically he told me to break up and mind my own business.”

Fischer said in his resignation statement: “It is evident that in 2021 the British Museum has not responded to the warnings as comprehensively as it should have responded.” He also apologized to Gradel.

The thefts and the museum’s botched response have plunged the institution into a crisis.

Located in central London’s Bloomsbury, the 18th-century museum is one of Britain’s top tourist attractions, with 6 million visitors a year. You’ll tour a collection ranging from Egyptian mummies and ancient Greek statues to Viking hoards, scrolls of 12th-century Chinese poetry and masks created by Canada’s indigenous peoples.

The thefts have been picked up by those who want the museum to return items taken from around the world during the British Empire period, including friezes that once decorated the Parthenon in Athens and Benin bronzes from West Africa.

“We would like to say to the British Museum that it can no longer say that the Greek (cultural) heritage will be given more protection in the British Museum,” Despina Koutsoumba, head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, told the BBC this week.

Osborne, a former chief of the UK Treasury, said the museum had launched an independent review led by a lawyer and a senior police officer. He said they also built a state-of-the-art storage facility off-site so that the collection was no longer housed in an “18th-century cellar.”

“Personally, I don’t think there was any kind of deliberate cover-up, although the review may conclude that it was,” he said.

“But at the time at the museum, at the top of the museum, was there a potential group that just couldn’t believe that an insider was stealing things, couldn’t believe that one of the employees was doing it? Yes, that is very possible.

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